Art

The Alluring Dance of Selfies and Self-Portraits

An exhibition in Venice celebrates the glitz and grandeur of self-portraits by star artists at a time when members of the public are increasingly wary about sharing images of themselves.

Félix González-Torres, “Untitled (Blood)" (1992), dimensions variable, strands of hanging beads, Pinault Collection (photo by Matteo De Fina)
Félix González-Torres, “Untitled (Blood)” (1992), dimensions variable, strands of hanging beads, Pinault Collection (photo by Matteo De Fina)

VENICE — In face of Cambridge Analytica and Facebook’s privacy pirating scandal, a sharpened desire to conceal the cultural markers of ‘self’ has surfaced. With that in mind, I was curious to see how all the identity-revealing, self-presenting, and self-promoting art of Dancing with Myself — a selfie- and self-portrait-themed group show at the Pinault Collection’s Punta della Dogana space spanning the 1970s to today — would face up to the current context of identity harvesting. How would the self-divulging vibe sit given the current backlash against psychographics: the cunning collection of demographic lifestyle-behavioral data that brought us Brexit, Trump, and a flood of xenophobic nationalist identity-reductionisms.

The narcotic-like act of digital self-exposure has lost face and turned scuzzy thanks to Robert Mercer, Steve Bannon, and Christopher Wylie’s amassing of Facebook profiles linked to Russian cyber interference in the elections of liberal democracies. Such interference, it is generally agreed, played a crucial role in the election of the hyperbolic and narcissistic dumpster fire Donald Trump, himself a strange orange-faced scammer and an excellent example of his own favorite phrase, ‘fake news.’

Urs Lüthi installation in Dancing with Myself (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)
Urs Lüthi installation in Dancing with Myself (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

But the European on-the-ground reality in front of me is that everything here — drawn from François Pinault’s private collection and that of the Museum Folkwang in Essen — is elegantly and beautifully hung and well spread out to fill and flow through the massive and handsome Punta della Dogana space. On view are 145 works of photography, video, painting, sculpture, and installation that construct a patchy survey of contemporary portraiture and the mechanics of its staging. Even though co-curator Martin Bethenod writes in the catalogue that Dancing with Myself should not be interpreted as being about looking at oneself or talking about oneself, it certainly is about playing with oneself, and the undeniably elegant frame of the building gives all the onanistic self-caressing an inherently and automatically noble presentation. Indeed, its grandeur implies that it is de facto excellent to show off the glossolalia of our genitalia; that it is only normal and right that we want to compare and boast and show off and give full rein to our every vain desire, while keeping our noses perkily pressed against the computer window of celebrities’ ‘private’ luxe lives.

At the outset it was worrisome that the show shares its title with a truly awful 1980s pop-dance song by Billy Idol. His superficial ditty to the self was a catchy harbinger of the selling out of punk art ethics for the shallow selfie and celebrity cultural politics with which we are now far too familiar. Idol himself could be considered the dimwitted, gnarling pied piper of Trump’s self-branding style of excess, which turns immoderation into a global capital aesthetic commodity. Indeed, the success of Kering, François Pinault’s chic luxury brand empire, largely depends on this aspirational performance.

Cindy Sherman, "Untitled #578" (2016), dye sublimation metal print, 128.3 x 121.9 cm, Pinault Collection (courtesy of the artist and Metro Pictures, New York; photo by Matteo De Fina)
Cindy Sherman, “Untitled #578” (2016), dye sublimation metal print, 128.3 x 121.9 cm, Pinault Collection (courtesy of the artist and Metro Pictures, New York; photo by Matteo De Fina)

But after passing through Félix González-Torres’s symbolist “Untitled (Blood)” (1992) strands of red beads at the exhibition’s entrance, it was encouraging to see the curators Bethenod and Florian Ebner digging deeper into the ‘self’ with emotional sub-themes of melancholia, political autobiography, materiality and identity games, best exemplified by the incognito poly-identities presented by Urs Lüthi, Claude Cahun, Marcel Bascoulard, and Cindy Sherman. Their self-masking thematic struck me the deepest as it reminds us that automated artificial intelligence facial recognition is soon destined to have a monstrous effect on our lives.

The complexity of Sherman’s possibly offensive blackface self-portraits, such as “Untitled (Bus Riders)” (1976), in particular elicited ideas of imaginary poly-selves that still connect us to all of humanity while they offer expansive qualities for which the workings of photography, science, and medicine cannot do suitable justice. Rarely exhibited, Bus Riders is a series of 15 black-and-white photographs Sherman produced shortly after graduating from college in Buffalo, which I first saw in 2000 at Glen Horowitz Books in East Hampton. One of them is cross-dressed male; three are androgynous, and five are black-faced.

Marcel Bascoulard, "Pose 1, 24 avril 1972" (1972), gelatin-silver print 13 x 8.9 cm, Pinault Collection (© Galerie Christophe Gaillard)
Marcel Bascoulard, “Pose 1, 24 avril 1972” (1972), gelatin-silver print 13 x 8.9 cm, Pinault Collection (© Galerie Christophe Gaillard)

The chimeric Sherman probably is the central artist of the exhibition, with 45 of her works included, which may have been too long a march through the female unconscious, considering there are none by Carolee Schneemann or the great hybrid poseur Pierre Molinier. In their absence, Cahun, Lüthi and Bascoulard take full advantage of the use of nuanced cultural façades that indicate an interest in signal ambiguity within the semiotic field. When looking at their work, desire can take us by surprise, leading us toward disguised hybrid-people we hadn’t imagined we would ever love or trust. Certainly, their impertinent masks within the look-at-me premise of the show can be reconsidered as culturally prescient in lieu of the psychographic politics that have dowsed the internet ego-rush of freely sharing selfie data — a rush that has remade unmasked masses into raw commodities.

Urs Fischer, “Untitled” (2011), paraffin wax mixture, pigment, steel, wicks 136.8 x 117.7 x 191.3 cm, Pinault Collection (photo by Matteo De Fina)
Urs Fischer, “Untitled” (2011), paraffin wax mixture, pigment, steel, wicks 136.8 x 117.7 x 191.3 cm, Pinault Collection (photo by Matteo De Fina)

Taking another tactic towards disappearance is Urs Fischer’s dismaying and singularly masculine meltdown, “Untitled” (2011), made entirely of wax. Though something of a gimmick, once lit up the giant candle slowly and sentimentally consumes itself over the span of the exhibition. This anemic allegorical vanité reminds us that we are all melting and that it is advisable to meditate on the transient nature of life. Likewise, John Coplans’s fragmented but monumental-seeming photographs demonstrate in a dramatic way the tangible effects of time on the weight and look of a man’s body. Coplans’s profoundly sad but beautiful “Self-Portrait (Side Heel and Toe)” (1989) and the somewhat gross “Self-Portrait (Hand with Buttocks)” (1987) focuses the mind on sculptural forms shaded with pity and acceptance. Coplans clearly is a connoisseur of the deadpan ugly who relishes in stout sensations of inexorable annihilation. Such stoic philosophical reflections hit me as somewhat ironic within the collection of the maestro of trendy luxury, as stoicism is predominantly a philosophy that teaches that the path to happiness is found in accepting the moment as it presents itself to us (be here now), and by not allowing ourselves to be controlled by our desires for luxurious pleasures.

John Coplans, "Self-Portrait (Hand with Buttocks)" (1987), gelatin silver print, 43.7 x 53.4 cm, collection Folkwang Museum (© John Coplans Trust)
John Coplans, “Self-Portrait (Hand with Buttocks)” (1987), gelatin silver print, 43.7 x 53.4 cm, collection Folkwang Museum (© John Coplans Trust)

Lee Friedlander’s and LaToya Ruby Frazier’s straight, full-frame photography simply doesn’t hold up as well conceptually here within the mutable, invasive, algorithmic landscape in which we age and eventually melt. With its dependence on crisp full-frame capture technology, Frazier’s curt “Self Portrait (Lupus Attack)” (2005) seems of minor usefulness in understanding the self in a way that shifts boundaries and departs from established facial surveillance functions. And unless you are unaware that identity forms the basis of our conscious and unconscious apprehension of reality — and can give us insight into reality that people with different experiences are effectively blind to or unmoved by — Roni Horn’s room of almost ethnographic photo diptychs quickly becomes redundant.

On the other hand, Lili Reynaud-Dewar’s mute, black-and-white solo dance video “Live through that ?! (Atelier Brancusi)” (2014) is outstanding. Exhibiting a combination of tenderness and strength that is both pixiesque-playful and sexy self-confident, the naked performer, painted black, daintily prances like a spring nymph in front of the gorgeously soaring Brancusi sculptures at the Pompidou’s Atelier Brancusi. It immediately brought to mind the rich tradition of Victorian fairy painting, where frisky fairy sprites dance circuitously about the omphalos.

Gilbert & George, “Blood Tears Spunk Piss” (1996) (photo by Matteo De Fina)
Gilbert & George, “Blood Tears Spunk Piss” (1996) (photo by Matteo De Fina)

Letting the actual supercilious phalos hang out are Gilbert & George in their mammoth “Blood Tears Spunk Piss” (1996) photo mural. Both men appear frontally naked, set off powerfully against magnified specimens of their bodily fluids. Also tenderly coupled, the artists show off not only their junk, but their mutual affection. Similarly scaling up the self to billboard size is Rudolf Stingel’s photorealist “Untitled (Alpino, 1976)” (2006) — a self-portrait based on Stingel’s 1976 Italian military identification that even reproduces the staple and official stamp marks — and the impressively elegant “Louvre (After Sam)” (2006) painting, which depicts Stingel as an inward but dapper and defeated-looking middle-aged gent. This massive dark painting has a sardonic commedia dell’arte aspect that speaks to me of political withdrawal and is well worth languishing over. Atrocious eyes of algorithmic perception seem to have been upon him, and he seems to be suffering from the hyped ‘self’ typical of the art world, and is not sure what all the exposure is doing to the memories he has handed over to social media corporations.

However, little in this celebrity artist-filled show — which includes male mega-star assets Maurizio Cattelan, Bruce Nauman, Damien Hirst, David Hammons and Robert Gober — argues for any kind of self-logo indiscernibility, even as deviating from the regularities of hyper-visibility might provide new sources for artistic production and social self-possession. These days, at least outside of the art world, the self yearns for obscurity to the degree that identifiable codes cannot be easily discerned and manipulated. Such a phantasmagorical obscurity is desirable in a society that has become increasingly data-mined, data-mapped, quantified, and branded. So the problem with Dancing with Myself is not really its problem, it’s our problem with the show’s basic premise of becoming-perceptible in a time when visibility has proven detrimental. The general extrovert trend of the show has been turned on its head with the identity pirating that Cambridge Analytica performed in the interests of reactionary political isolationism. The assertive, presentational tendency of the work in Dancing with Myself has spilled over the lip of the entertainment wasteland into targeted data monitoring surveillance. That is what has suggested to me to take a somewhat different perspective on contemporary self-portraiture here, stopping short of posthumanism.

Rudolf Stingel, "Untitled (Alpino, 1976)" (2006), oil on canvas, 335.9 x 326.4 cm, Pinault Collection (photo by Stefan Altenburger, courtesy the artist)
Rudolf Stingel, “Untitled (Alpino, 1976)” (2006), oil on canvas, 335.9 x 326.4 cm, Pinault Collection (photo by Stefan Altenburger, courtesy the artist)

Nietzsche wrote that the bright clarity of an image does not suffice because that lucidity conceals something else. Taking that advice, many people today are, rather than exposing themselves to as many eyeballs as possible, obscuring their psychographical identities out of concern with how their data is collected and stored by user-generated content platforms and transferred to third and fourth parties. Some have concluded that the Web 2.0 and social media have had a profoundly negative effect on the world and our sense of agency within it. Some are choosing to evade the selfie net by muffling and camouflaging their self-portraiture, which may be why social media is intoxicated with the Instagram images of Cindy Sherman. By contrast, much of this show seems to simply expect people to look at artists’ unconventional poses so they can compare themselves to them so as to better self-distinguish and display themselves. But I find it now impossible to accept such a prospect without apprehension.

One of the big benefits of Dancing with Myself is that it offers the opportunity to reconsider the hopes and failures of radical self-exposure in the recent past. Much of it is a marker of our level of estrangement and is as hauntingly pathetic as the graveyard that Myspace became. What might be missing from this interpretative path is social-political art considered in terms of the multitude, where the technologies of encryption and veiled visibility prevail against the laconic shape of singular ontology.

Dancing with Myself continues at the Punta della Dogana (Dorsoduro 2, Venice, Italy) through December 6.

Editor’s note: the author’s travel expenses to and from Venice were provided by the cultural communication agency Claudine Colin Communication.

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